“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” (Revelation 21:2-4)
“...also, on either side of the river, the tree of life.” (Revelation 22:2)
It’s been a year since The Tree of Life won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and then opened in theaters. I wrote a review when the film came out but have since had the luxury of many repeat viewings and lots of conversations about it. There are numerous aspects of the film that have grown in interest for me as I’ve spent more time with it. Among other things, my belief that the film is fundamentally a deeply Christian, liturgical work has only increased.
Some people I talk to liken the film to a sacred masterwork on the level of Handel. Even critics like Roger Ebert see the film in this religious light. Ebert—who recently added Life to his all time top 10 list—called the film “a prayer.” And even if Life as a whole cannot be read as a prayer, certainly prayer is a central motif. The prayer candle is an image that connects past and present in the film, for example. And Jack (portrayed at times by Sean Penn and Hunter McCracken) is constantly heard in voiceover talking to what we assume to be God: “Brother; Mother: it was they that led me to your door.” “When did you first touch my heart?” “Where were you? You let a boy die.” “How did you come to me? In what shape? In what disguise?”
So also is Jack’s mother, Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain): “Lord, why?” “Where were you?” “Who are we to you?” “Answer me.”
The film begins with Job 38:4 (“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?") and ends with 15 minutes of Berlioz’ “Requiem,” the “Agnus Dei” section: Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant them everlasting rest. / Thou, O God, art praised in Zion and unto Thee shall the vow be performed in Jerusalem. … Grant the dead eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine on them, with Thy saints for ever, Lord, because Thou art merciful. Amen.
These are the words (translated from Latin) that we hear a choir sing over the film’s final minutes, as images of catharsis and renewal fill the screen: reunions, resurrections, rising women in wedding dresses, a defeated jester’s mask, sunsets, sunflowers, the apparent destruction of earth, and hands lifted in unison, upward to the heavens.
Among the many questions prompted by a close viewing of this finale sequence—and indeed, the whole film—is the identity and meaning of the mystery woman seen with Jessica Chastain’s older and younger self in the “Amen” sequence. She shows up in part (usually just her hands) and in full on a number of occasions throughout the film--especially at the beginning of Jack’s life and in the film’s final fifteen minutes.
How are we to interpret this figure? I think it’s clear that she’s not meant to be taken as a literal human character in the story; she only appears in the dreamier sequences, has no lines and is never seen for longer than a few seconds at a time. We barely glimpse her face at all (until the “Amen” sequence). Who is she?
One clue can be found in the credits, where she’s listed as “Guide,” portrayed by an actress by the name of Jessica Fuselier (side note: there’s absolutely nothing on the Internet about anyone named “Jessica Fuselier,” which adds to the “Oh, so Malick” mystery).
It’s my contention that this “Guide”—this female figure, always clad in light colored dress, always “around” and a figure of comfort and care—is intended by Malick to be a sort of embodied symbol of the Holy Spirit. I could be totally wrong, and knowing Malick it’s probably nothing as direct as that, but given the film’s overtly Christian ambience I think it’s a fair reading. Here’s my reasoning.
I. “When did you first touch my heart?”
“Guide” is one of the functional roles of the Holy Spirit as seen in Scripture. It is the Holy Spirit that leads Christ into the wilderness (Luke 4:1), and Romans 8:14 tells us that “those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.”
In the film, the “Guide” leads Sean Penn’s character through the wilderness, ultimately through a “gate” signaling some sort of spiritual breakthrough or coming to faith. The Guide also leads little children through a gate in a forest, along a riverbed, gently signaling for them to follow her. This sequence--set to the music of Respighi’s “Suite No. 3”--begins with Jack’s voiceover: “You spoke to me through her; you spoke to me from the sky, the trees. Before I knew I loved you--believed in you” (as we see a dove-like bird flying in a sun-filled sky, and then trees, and then more skies). “When did you first touch my heart?”
From there we see a montage of Jack’s parents (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt) falling in love and his mother giving birth to him. Interspersed are oblique images of the Guide--clad in a white gown--pointing the way through a gate, then whispering something to a child (toddler Jack) whilst holding a candle, showing the child a tiny little book, guiding a group of children through a forest, followed by a shot of toddler Jack swimming through a door of an underwater house and then a shot of a woman in a wedding dress swimming upwards in a similar fashion (a shot repeated in the final moments of the film). This sequence is a lot to digest, to say the least. But the impression we get in terms of the Guide is that she is a benevolent force that, even from the moment of birth, is there to guide Jack and lead him in the way of light and truth.
The Holy Spirit, we are told in John 16:13, “will guide you into all the truth” and will “declare to you the things that are to come.” The “Helper, the Holy Spirit,” says Jesus in John 14:26, “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
The Holy Spirit--the third person of the Holy Trinity--is thus identified as an advocate, a helper, a guide toward the truth (John 15:26). But it also serves as comforter and interceder, helping us in our weakness, “for we do not know what to pray for as we ought... the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27). We see this aspect of the Spirit in Life in a brief shot of a woman’s hand hovering over Jack’s head and chest (0:57:44) as in voiceover we hear him pray: “Help me not to sass my dad, help me not to get dogs in fights, help me be thankful for everything I’ve got, help me not to tell lies.” Later we see those same hands gently giving Jack a drink from what looks like a communion cup and sprinkling water on his forehead as if in baptism (1:12:55), evoking another biblical association of the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8).
Another scriptural motif pertaining to the Holy Spirit is that of resurrecting power, as seen in Romans 8:10-11: “But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit give life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” We see images of this with the Guide in the film’s climactic Requiem scene--as she is seen extending her hand to what looks like someone in a grave, who appears to have risen from the dead (2:05:23). Moments later, we see a bride in a wedding dress lying down as if asleep, and then standing upright, resurrected and alive (2:05:40).
A few seconds later, the Guide is depicted as a being to be worshipped: On the beach, older Jack (Penn) bows at her feet (2:06:20). We then see her embrace and cradle the head of the boy with burn scars on his head (2:06:35). The last time we see her is in the “Amen” finale to the Requiem prayer, where we see her surrounding Mrs. O’Brien (Chastain) in a state of sun-bathed harmony and peace, helping her lift up her hands as if in praise.
Revelation 22 should be a guiding text in our interpretation of Life’s eschatological climax, if only because it depicts the restored Eden and its “tree of life” (vs. 2). Verse 17 seems particularly interesting if read with the images of the “Amen” sequence in mind. The verse reads: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’” It’s a call directed to Christ--the bridegroom--to return to earth and reign in the New Jerusalem with his people. Given the “bridal” imagery that we see in cryptic snippets throughout the film (appearing to be Jessica Chastain), perhaps in that final “Amen” sequence she represents the “Bride” of verse 17 and the Guide represents the Spirit. Certainly the “bride” imagery has eschatological connotations, as does the Spirit’s resurrecting the dead, both of which we see in Life’s final moments.
II. “Always you were calling me.”
Even though the total screen time of the Guide in Life is only a few minutes, the presence of the Holy Spirit if felt throughout--the film’s opening and closing with the mysterious, God-like wispy flame should suggest as much.
One of the functions of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is to convict the unbeliever about sin (John 16:7-8) and catalyze the process of renewing faith (Titus 3:5). We see this in the arc of Jack--who comes to a convicted place about his sin and recognizes that God was behind it. Following the episode where he shoots his brother’s finger with a BB gun and then asks him for forgiveness, Jack wonders--as the camera pulls upwards in a God-like point of view--“What was it that you showed me? I didn’t know how to name you then. But I see it was you. Always you were calling me.”
The Holy Spirit also serves to help us in our battle with sin (“the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, to keep you from doing the things you want to do,” Gal 5:17), which we see in Jack’s Romans 7-esque inner turmoil about his own nature (“What I want to do I can’t do. I do what I hate”). It is that humbled conviction that leads Jack in the next scene to seek reconciliation with the brother he has wronged.
We see a similar thing happen to Jack’s father a few scenes later, as he too recognizes the faults of his nature: “I wanted to be loved because I’m great, a big man. I’m nothing. Look: the glory around us, the trees, the birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.”
A close listen to this sequence will reveal that the quiet piano score we hear is actually a melodic quotation of the Respighi excerpt from the “When did you first touch my heart?” sequence of Jack’s birth and the Guide leading the children. We should take note of the aural parallel here between that early sequence (Edenic in its beauty and innocence) and this sequence (both Jack and his father recognizing their flawed nature--“I’m as bad as you are”--and accepting the way of grace). No music is arbitrarily chosen in a Malick film, and this Respighi melody seems to embody the theme of grace in the film. The way of “nature,” on the other hand, is represented in the mournful melodies of Preisner’s “Lacrimosa,” which we hear during the universe creation sequence (as Mrs. O’Brien asks God the “Why?” questions of suffering) and then, in subtler piano quotation, during Jack’s “I do what I hate” sequence of sin and guilt.
The triumph of grace over the despair of nature in the film doesn’t happen by accident. As we see through a close read, the Guide is present throughout the film--embodied but also implicit and unseen--helping these characters in their spiritual journeys and guiding them through grief, sin, and the constant battle with their errant impulses and prideful nature.
Considered in the broader context of the film, the nearness and presence of a benevolent guiding force represents the immanence against which the “where are you?” perceptions of a distant God are juxtaposed. The film’s 20 minute creation sequence--sandwiched as it is between one Texas family’s intimate pains on one hand (a son’s death) and joys on the other (a son’s birth)--establishes the bigness of the universe and the smallness of man. It’s a massive, cold, ruthless universe, magnificent and beautiful in its ambivalence toward the individual life (one dinosaur spares another, but in the next scene nature--or God?--destroys them all by hurling an asteroid to earth). And yet the pastoral adventures of Jack’s youth and spiritual epiphany that follows do not bear out this dire assessment.
Rather, Jack’s life is guided by God at every turn--even if he doesn’t recognize it.
In some ways the Guide can help us make sense of the film’s real understanding of “the way of nature” and “the way of grace.” Nature assumes that we are all on our own--that we are small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, wandering purposeless (Sean Penn in a desert, perhaps) in a hostile creation. That “way” is self-interested and, given the eventuality of mortality, ultimately aimless. We are all going to suffer the same extinction as the dinosaurs, so what is our telos? Lacrimosa dies illa indeed.
Grace, however, inserts a telos into the story by offering up an alternate “way” that rebuffs self interest (“grace doesn’t try to please itself”) and directs our attention to the Divine Other from which hope and purpose derives. The “Guide” is the helper, the voice of conviction, the spiritual awakening helping us to desire the way of grace--which is the way of humility, of relinquishing our grasp on our own natural way, of, finally, giving up our insistent hold on that which we believe to be our rightful property or path.
“I give him to you,” says Mrs. O’Brien in the film’s final line. “I give you my son.”
She’s discovered the way of grace.
“I’m nothing,” says Mr. O’Brien.
He’s discovered it too.
Jack also sees that he’s been guided all the time (“I see it was you; always you were calling me”), that he’s been watched over and led to faith by a divine Guide, out of the dry desert of sin, stubbornness and pride and into the lush, Edenic landscape of oceans, waterfalls and the river of life.
III. “The great river that never runs dry.”
This is not a new idea for Malick. His other films have explored it too--this notion of giving up one’s insistent, natural urge to “please oneself” and humbly accepting a path that--though directed by Another--ultimately leads to a place more pristine and satisfying than we could have found for ourselves. It’s the arc of Pocahontas in The New World: her Eden is destroyed by the depravity of man and yet cannot be regained on her own merits; she must relinquish control and trust the Divine direction (“Mother,” to whom she prays), even if it isn’t what she’d imagined for her life (e.g. John Rolfe instead of John Smith).
Likewise for Private Witt in The Thin Red Line: his Paradise is lost early in the film, and his attempts to regain it midway through only serve to reinforce how grave is the “war in the heart of nature” and how deeply red is the stain of sin. He too opts for the way of grace, in faith moving forward in the unknowable fog, ready and willing to go wherever he is guided (even unto death).
In The Tree of Life, Jack too finds his Paradise/innocence lost (“How do I get back where they are?”), and wrestles with his inability to overcome the misguided desires of his nature (nearly quoting Romans 7:15: “I do what I hate...”). Jack’s lament for innocence lost and reflections on his own depravity echo the inner monologues of The Thin Red Line: “This great evil: where's it come from? … Who's doing this? Who's killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known.”
For Jack and for Witt--and for any of us--one of the problems of evil is that we so rarely see it as our problem. We must see that the fallenness of nature touches us all, and that the way of grace is likewise available to all as a redemptive alternative. It’s only when we humble ourselves and recognize the extent of our brokenness that we can begin to heal.
We must loosen our grip, cede our control and broaden our horizons to include the possibility that we were not made for our own glory, but for Another’s. Look at the beauty around us--look at the wonder! Malick’s films beckon us to pay closer attention to the majesty and complexity of creation (in the ground, in the sky, in our neighbor) than we do ourselves.
In Life, Malick offers us a liberating vision of a way of living that draws us out of our own “my road or the high road!” autonomy and into a path of humility in which we are subject to a Director other than our self--a Director whose intentions for us may include loss, suffering, and challenges we’d never choose. It’s a subversive vision in a culture where individual happiness is the chief goal and the means to that end is each individual’s assertion of their absolute right to freedom of choice, freedom of identity, freedom to determine one’s path independently of any other.
Malick’s early films--Badlands (1972) and Days of Heaven (1978)--centered upon iconic, lone ranger figures of American solidarity, blazing their trails westward and subject to no one but themselves. Martin Sheen’s James Dean-esque outlaw, Kit, in Badlands is unapologetic in his refusal to have his course set by anything other than his own (sometimes homicidal) whims and slapdash fancies. Richard Gere’s Bill in Days of Heaven has more of a conscience than Kit but is no less resistant to having his absolute autonomy compromised. Neither Kit nor Bill really know what they want, and their paths are resultantly schizophrenic and (literally) all over the map. Bill hops on a train to Texas wheatfields one minute and flies off with a circus act the next. Kit--his equally aimless girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek) in tow--is on the open road to nowhere, wandering aimlessly in a barren western landscape not unlike the desert of Sean Penn’s wanderings in Life. In the end, Kit and Bill meet lonely, sad ends--their insistent, prideful autonomy having failed to locate whatever specter of Eden plagued their restless hearts.
With Malick’s later films--The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), and now The Tree of Life (2011)--however, the autonomous individual protagonist becomes much more reliant on others. In Line, Witt can still be read as a Thoreau-esque individualist, a canoeing wanderer searching for truth on his own--and yet he’s very much aware of and attentive to the Other, a divine “spark” he feels in the air and sees in the eyes of others. It’s not just about him; he’s willing to be shown things by others, by God, by the glory around him (“all things shining...”). In World, Pocahontas shares Witt’s hyper-observational awe and humble curiosity about the world around her. She’s wide-eyed and enraptured by the beauty around her--even when it’s harsh and alien (the Jamestown colony, her trip to England). Even when she’s wronged, when her people are driven out of their lands, she reacts with humility. Like a tree whose branch breaks off but continues to grow, she adapts and moves on in faith.
The New World opens with a voiceover prologue from Pocahontas in which she says, “Come, Spirit--help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother... we rise from out of the soul of you.” These lines are accompanied by Edenic images of a river--reflecting the sky, the trees, the clouds--and then an image of Pocahontas on the beach, lifting up her hands to the heavens as if in praise (quite reminiscent, in fact, of Jessica Chastain’s “Amen” motions of praise at the end of Life). Throughout the film Pocahontas wonders about the presence of “Mother”--“Where do you live? In the sky? The clouds? The sea? Give me a sign”--in a manner not dissimilar from Chastain’s ponderings near the beginning of Life. Pocahontas prays to Mother: “How should I seek you? Show me your face. You, the great river that never runs dry.” (Side note: the actress who plays Mother in World--Irene Bedard--was the voice Pocahontas in Disney’s animated version, and also has a 5-second cameo in Life, where she’s credited as “Messenger.” See 0:17:32 in Life for her brief, cryptic appearance, caressing R.L. through a window curtain and kissing his face).
Though Pocahontas is unaware of Christ at this point, I believe that “Mother”--the deity to whom she prays--represents the echoes of Eden and the pangs of lost communion between creatures and Creator that every human feels (the sensus divinitatis, as Calvin might say). It’s interesting that she describes this deity as “the great river that never runs dry,” which brings to mind the River of Life in Revelation 22--the passage that also mentions the “Tree of Life” (vs. 2) in its description of the renewed creation and restored communion between God and man. Indeed, it’s also interesting that at the end of World, after Pocahontas comes to a peace (“Mother, now I know where you live)” the film ends with an image of a river, and then a tree in the final shot. Could it be read as a Revelation 22-esque “Eden restored” in the same way as Tree of Life’s finale?
Each of Malick’s films is in some sense about the specter of Paradise Lost and the felt breach of communion between God and man (on account of sin). Each film evokes that longing for an eschatological recovery of that wholeness, that Rev. 21 moment when God will once again dwell in physical presence with his people. But before that day comes, in between the Gen. 1 and Rev. 22 “trees of life,” God’s presence is also made available to us, by grace, in the form of the Holy Spirit. Because of what happened on another tree (the cross of Christ), God’s presence is given to us through the Holy Spirit: a guide, a helper, an advocate, a spirit of resurrection within our own feeble frames.
It’s a Spirit that Malick’s Life makes explicit through an embodied character, but also implicit as an unseen divine presence, calling characters to faith, to worship, to humility and to love. It’s a Spirit that is with us throughout our journeys (“guide us to the end of time...”) if we are open to being led.
Come, Holy Spirit. Guide us.